Have You Ever Tried to Decline an Airplane Napkin?

It’s difficult.

An illustration of an airplane and a hand offering a cocktail napkin
Theerapan / Sufi / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

In the interest of cutting costs, airlines have taken away everything that used to be free—so the refrain goes. Gone are the meals that used to be included in the ticket price for flights that verged on mealtime hours. First checked bags started carrying an additional charge, and now sometimes you have to pay for a carry-on.

On planes, I like to joke to whoever is seated next to me that soon we’ll have to pay extra if we want oxygen masks to fall from the ceiling in case of emergency. My seatmates pretend to be listening to their headphones, because I’ve been talking a lot, but I think they get the point.

The one thing that hasn’t been taken away, I continue, is soft-drink service. And with every drink comes a three-inch-by-three-inch cocktail napkin—which, unlike pretty much anything else, the airlines really, really want to give you.

Have you ever tried to decline a cocktail napkin on an airplane?

It seems straightforward. What you do, basically, is ask for a cup of water or coffee or something, then say, “I don’t need a napkin, thank you.” I’ve probably tried a hundred times, but I’ve only succeeded a few. Surely sometimes giving me the napkin is just muscle memory on the part of the very busy flight attendant, which I totally understand. But some flight attendants look at me like I have no idea what I’m talking about, like I’ve just asked to take a drink straight from their bottle of non-dairy creamer, and hand me a napkin. Sometimes it becomes a conversation, where my sanity is called to question. “Are you sure about that? You really should have a little napkin. What if you spill? Here.”

It’s a plane, and I really might spill my drink, but what good would a cocktail napkin be? Cocktail napkins were designed to handle rings of condensation, but are wholly ineffective in spill scenarios. It’s like tossing a sponge into a pond. Yet millions are given out and thrown away every day, and in aggregate their effect on the world isn’t inconsequential.

“It’s really just how we’ve always done it,” said Ivan Noel, the president of a cabin-crew training organization called the In-Flight Institute, which staffs airlines around the world. “It’s probably a holdback from the past. I haven’t put a great deal of thought into it.”

It’s not clear to me anyone has.

“They’re light, they’re inexpensive, and they can also be used as marketing,” he continued, explaining to me that during training, flight attendants are told the logo on the cocktail napkin goes up and toward the passenger. Some low-cost carriers have begun printing actual advertisements on the napkins.

“It does have a utilitarian use, as well,” he said. “Particularly if you’re on a bumpier flight and you’re stuck in your seat, and if you don’t have a napkin on you, I would suggest that it would be uncomfortable to have fluid on your table tray.”

That’s when I would ring the call button and say there is fluid on my tray and ask for a napkin.

“That’s a very good point as well,” he said. “However, let’s say that you just have condensation.”

Commercial airplanes have plastic tray tables, which aren’t damaged by water rings. [Editor’s note: What about damage to a magazine you put on the table? JH: How much condensation do you get in airplanes? I feel like the climate control keeps it minimal. Ed.: Just looking out for magazines.] It takes concerted effort to damage a tray table, in my experience.

“Well let’s say you have a ring on your table tray, which now you’re going to put away, and it’s going to get the inside of the seat back wet,” Noel said. “That could be another way to look at it.”

The other argument in favor of the cocktail napkin is that it prevents the drink from sliding across the tray table. That’s true—assuming you don’t have one of those tray tables with a recessed well that’s made to sort of secure a cup. Like the idea of cupholders on planes is so impossible. But that’s a screed for another time.

If the idea is that the napkin prevents the cup from sliding, the scenario in which the napkin actually prevents a spill is a very rare one. The force of turbulence or a bumped tray would have to be great enough to overcome the friction of the cup-tray interface, but not great enough to overcome the cup-napkin-tray interface.

I don’t know what made me start getting anxious about wasted airplane napkins, but once I started thinking about them, they became really important. Every day, 2,587,000 people fly in and out of U.S. airports alone. I started seeing people as napkins.

Of course, the fuel that’s burned to carry all these planes and people and luggage is a vastly more significant source of environmental influence than billions of wasted napkins, so this could seem like a drop in the bucket. But since the proverbial bucket is actively overflowing at the moment, every drop counts. If every plane stopped carrying boxes of cocktail napkins, the effect on the weight of the aircraft could add up. It could mean less wasted fuel, or at least an improved ability to fly in increasingly hot climates. As The New York Times recently reported, “Hot temperatures cause air density to decrease, reducing lift and forcing airlines to either reduce weight on flights or move departures to cooler hours of the day. Experts say that will most likely pose a long-term economic challenge for airports.” A recent study in Climatic Change found that by the middle of the century, as many as 30 percent of flights will face additional weight restrictions to take off during midday heat.

So could getting rid of cocktail napkins help?

“It would be actually an interesting cost-benefit analysis,” said Noel. “You could be saving some money and space. Though it would be interesting to see how many people would then use the motion-sickness bags for their garbage or their gum—and those bags are not cheap. They’re lined.”

In economics I believe this is referred to as the vomit-bag externality. And of course one must also consider the nuanced sociocultural milieu into which a change like this is introduced.

“I would wonder how the passenger would perceive the loss of a napkin,” said Noel. “Someone who’s not thinking directly about the environmental impact might see that as just one more thing that’s being taken away.”

That’s probably true. Agency is important in a change like this. If people are asked if they need a little napkin, many would probably decline. Those same people might grumble if the expected napkin had simply disappeared.

The nice thing about life is you get to choose whether you want to see stuff like this as one more thing taken away or one fewer thing wasted.

After years of declining napkins, as I was writing this—on a plane—I was drinking coffee and the person next to me bumped my arm. I spilled just the tiniest drop onto my shirt. And I thought, you know what would be perfect right now? So I commandeered his little napkin.